List of top 100 blacks has author Salley on the defensive

March 01, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Washington -- What's this -- Paul Laurence Dunbar ranked ahead of Richard Wright and James Baldwin? And wouldn't Thurgood Marshall have been ticked that Malcolm X was ranked one spot below him -- the same man about whom Marshall remarked a few years ago, "What did he ever do?" And Clarence Thomas being placed ahead of Spike Lee and Arthur Ashe, who weren't even ranked at all?

Columbus Salley has been hearing these comments, and many more like them, ever since his new book, "The Black 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential African-Americans Past and Present," was published last month by Citadel Press.

From No. 1 (Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) to No. 100 (Rosa Parks), he's had to defend his rankings on numerous radio talk shows. He's found out one thing: Everyone disagrees with him.

And that's exactly what Columbus Salley wanted. Because when people got mad at him, they started talking about blacks in American history -- and then they started thinking.

"I'm hoping that this book will force us as African-Americans to start talking about our history," Mr. Salley, 49, said during a recent book-promotion tour. "It shows a history of a great people, but too often we don't talk about this history because we've been saturated with the honor roll -- 'the first,' 'the great.' Black History Month is a good thing, but it's always the same people mentioned, and there's hardly ever any discussion or debate on them.

"Besides," he continues, moving on to another favorite theme, "we as black people don't talk to one another anymore, and we as Americans don't talk to people anymore. We are basically ahistorical."

It was this concern that blacks don't know their own history, he says, that drove him to begin "The Black 100" several years ago, after his tenure as superintendent of schools in Newark, N.J., from 1981 to 1985.

Given Mr. Salley's respect for the civil rights movement, it's not surprising that his choice as the most influential black American TC in history is King, who, he writes, was "the quintessential leader of the African-American unending quest for full economic, political, and social equality."

Similarly, the No. 2 person ranked was also a noted civil rights figure: 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, one of seven Maryland-born persons included. Other Marylanders chosen are Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman (No. 12), abolitionist Henry H. Garnet (14), surveyor and scientist Benjamin Banneker (16), Marshall (22), sociologist E. Frazier Franklin (38) and "Black Power" leader Ron Karenga (90).

"That's a high figure for a relatively small state," Mr. Salley said. "Why so many have come from Maryland, I couldn't say, but it might have come from the state's strong religious influence and from the relatively strong black middle class in Baltimore and elsewhere."

Although many of the names included in "The Black 100" would be familiar to most contemporary observers -- boxers Joe Louis (71) and Muhammad Ali (54), writers Toni Morrison (73) and Langston Hughes (34), civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson (47) and Ralph Abernathy (66) -- Mr. Salley included several that would generally be thought of as obscure. How many people, for instance, could identify the No. 7 choice, Prince Hall? Or James Forten, who is No. 11? (Hall was an 18th-century educator, and Forten a 19th-century abolitionist).

That's the whole purpose of this book," Mr. Salley maintains. "I'm not trying to feature the most talented, or the most popular, but the most influential, and those two you mention were extremely important in their time. I could have copped out by going back to the familiar, but I had to illuminate the struggle."

Though he expected disagreements over the figures he selected, Mr. Salley says by far his most controversial choice was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom he picked 98th. "I get a lot of flak on Thomas -- people say he's too new on the scene, and besides, they say, 'I just don't like the man.'

"But both of those positions are dead wrong. Basically, I disagree with Thomas on practically everything, ideologically and philosophically, but it's absolutely inconceivable and indefensible to say that Clarence Thomas has not been influential. And the selection helps to clarify that the black community is not monolithic."

Now chief executive officer of Ivory Group Inc., an East Orange, N.J., company that operates a chain of fast-food restaurants, Mr. Salley says he wants to continue work on "The Black 100," perhaps by updating it periodically.

"I see this as a table setter," he says. "In a few years time, there probably will be some movement on this list. Perhaps the influence of Arthur Ashe will continue after his [recent] death -- as it was, he was on my short list when I was writing the book. Things could be very different in five to seven years, for we are a living history."

SALLEY'S TOP 10

Here are the top 10 people named in Columbus Salley's "The Black 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential African-Americans Past and Present."

1. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader.

2. Frederick Douglass, 19th-century abolitionist.

Booker T. Washington, 19th- and 20th-century civil rights leader.

4. W. E. B. Du Bois, 20th-century civil rights leader.

Charles H. Houston, former dean of Howard University Law School.

6. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, formed in 1787 first black organization in English-speaking America.

7. Prince Hall, 18th-century Boston educator.

Samuel E. Cornish and John Russwurm, founded first black newspaper in America.

9. David Walker, 19th-century abolitionist.

10. Nat Turner, led slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.

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